Monday, October 12, 2009

Music and Motion: A conversation with Richard Alston

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Photo by Dee Conway

Richard Alston Dance Company, London's leading contemporary dance troupe, makes its first stop in Houston. After serving as artistic director of Ballet Rambert, Alston founded his company in 1994. Currently, he also serves as artistic director of The Place, a groundbreaking dance education institution. Alston introduces us to his work below.

Dance Source Houston: What can we expect from a Richard Alston dance?
Richard Alston: There's always this relationship between the dance and the music. I don't think you need to lean on it, but music supports the body. When I worked with Merce we used to rehearse in silence. He made that choice, but he also freed me to make my own choices.

DSH: That make sense seeing you have a show filled with musical giants, like Phillip Glass, Igor Stravinsky and John Sebastian Bach. What attracted you to Glass' "Songs from Liquid Days" for your work Blow Over?
RA: I have seen so many dances to Glass over the years. His work is associated with dance. I enjoy the mix of grandeur and the jazz/pop voices, of Suzanne Vega, David Byrne and Paul Simon. We have added a new Byrne song, "Open the Kingdom" and Houston will be first to see that. I find that the voice is so direct, and I like working with many layered elements. It's like a Handel anthem, very grand.

DSH: Movements from Petrushka seems timely in light of the Diaghilev celebration.
RA: I made the piece in 1994, but it made sense to revive the work now. Liz Reed created the costumes after Alexander Benois, who created the designs for the original piece. I like to have live music as often as possible. The pianist will be both live and on stage.

DSH: I found it fascinating that you worked with Merce Cunningham during the 1970s.
RA: Of course, Merce was a huge influence, but so were the release-based techniques. Steve Paxton was here you know. I worked closely with Frederick Ashton. I love the detail in Ashton's ballets. He is a kindred spirit.

DSH: I found your dancers so light, yet fully grounded. They are truly an embodied bunch. What do you look for in a dancer?
RA: I am glad you noticed that. Yes, I am interested in a deep physicality and flowing movement. But I love lightness too; I call it flying. They need to be very articulate dancers who challenge themselves. They also have to be really musical; we call it singing. They need to internalize the music. I loved Margot Fonteyn, she was that kind of dancer. I also like people with individual personalities. I don't want a company where everyone looks the same. We come in all different shapes and sizes.

DSH: It's quite an international group.
RA: I like that and pursue it.

DSH: There's one piece on the program by Martin Lawrence, your rehearsal director.
RA We are not turning into a rep company. Martin danced with the company for 15 years, and I am glad he can develop his own voice here. We sing from the same hymn book. Martin's piece is fast and joyful, a very uplifting piece.

DSH: You mention your appreciation of Henry Moore's work and have had a considerable amount of training in the visual arts. How does your training inform your work?
RA: It taught me how to see. I have always had a sharp eye and have been attracted to three dimensional sculptural ideas, so there's a touchable volume in my work stems from that experience. It's like a Henry Moore piece but moving all over the place.

DSH: The Place looks like a model for dance education.
RA: It is pretty unique to combine the intensity of a professional studio with an academic program. We also have a small theater. As the resident company, we are in a privileged position in that post grads who have apprenticed with the company, while some of my senior dancers have been able to work on their masters degrees.

DSH: How would you describe the current health of the dance field in the UK?
RA: The credit crunch has hit everyone, yet there's this amazing amount of activity going one. We get to see a lot of European dance here as well. Dance is full of resilient people. So it's steady. It's good.

The Society for the Performing Arts presents the Richard Alston Dance Company on Friday, October 16 at 8 PM at Wortham Center's Cullen Theater. Call 713-227-4SPA or visit

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.